I get that Donald Hall was the poet laureate of the United States and that President Obama gave him a medal. I get that he wrote more than 50 books of verse, essays, memoirs, children’s stories, etc. and that there is a Donald Hall Prize for Poetry. I get that he died this summer a few months shy of his 90th birthday and that we have a hard time in this culture speaking the truth about people who have died — especially those who have died recently. I get all that.
In the world of literature, particularly poetry, Donald Hall is a big deal. For many, he’s beyond reproach. I’m going to criticize him anyway.
When reviewers criticize the work of White men, they seem to like to follow a formula:
● Say something positive about the work.
● Water down your criticism of the work.
● Mention non-writing-related stuff, such as sexual assault or abuse they’ve inflicted on others only if you absolutely have to.
● Go back to saying nice things.
Much as the sparse, spry prose of Donald Hall’s last book, “A Carnival of Losses,” delighted me at the beginning, it was his flippantly discussing “chasing girls” and his pithy quips about jumping on girls and kissing them that turned me off. This moment in history compels me to call out his dismissive objectification attitude of women. I’m sick of reading the works of “great” men and feeling like I have to think sexual assault is funny, or brush it off because he was a teenager at the time. Does this sound familiar? I’m sick of the excuses — several of which I hear even from women — and the double standards and the “don’t let one negative aspect ruin the whole thing” point-of-view.
I could see that if the only stories that mattered were ones that centered wealthy White men who hobnob with other wealthy White men, drop some verse and blithely abuse the minds and bodies of women and call the spin cycle of abuse a “relationship.” But this isn’t true, and we deserve better stories.
Are all men abusers? No. Are any men writing out in protest of the casual way Hall and others — including Garrison Keillor, who was one of the men Hall writes about fondly — degrade women and then write about it? Not enough men protest. Do they expect us all to laugh, praise or turn the other cheek because the rest of Hall’s stuff is so good? Ann Patchett wrote a glowing endorsement of “A Carnival of Losses,” so women are praising him, too.
I’m sure I’ll be roundly accused of overreacting or blowing things out of proportion or holding a grudge … I’m a woman, I’ve heard them all. You will neither surprise me nor deter me. I don’t have a good answer for what we do with the art of abusive men or the work of men who maybe wouldn’t be characterized as abusive, but who write about jumping on girls in eighth grade, straddling and kissing them without their permission, fully expecting us to think they are “cute.” These are men who dismiss women by writing about going out with their friends to flirt mercilessly while they’re “between marriages” (yes, this was a phrase Hall actually used) because men will be men, right?
It’s disappointing to have to write a review this way — but, I do have to. It’s not just that the void of poetry in this culture has made us quite the impoverished bunch, emotionally speaking, and pointing out the deep flaws with a poet’s work will likely be taken as “don’t read poetry” (though “A Carnival of Losses” is not really a collection of poetry, but rather prose written by a high-status poet).
I generally want to take every opportunity I can to commend poetry to the public, because although poetry cannot fix everything, it can be one possible remedy to our anemic emotional lives, which are currently leading to the kind of unsustainable rage, echo-chamber isolation, surreally brutal politics, lethal mockery of governance being wrought by the present administration, as well the and shallow satisfaction we get from with broadcasting our opinions, however uninformed, in place of building real connections and relatonships.
The flood of writing we see about men like Hall isn’t changing a dam(n) thing for women. Being a woman (cis and especially trans) remains one of the most dangerous things a human can be in this world. And we can’t muster enough collective moral and social will to do anything about it.
Megan Wildhood is a contributing writer for Real Change, advocate in the mental health community, published poet and essayist living in Seattle.
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